Why Change Happens: Ten Theories

Sara Robinson

One of the grandest — and most frustrating — things about carrying on the great democratic conversation via blog is finding out how many of your fellow citizens (including many who are nominally on your side) turn out to be looking at the world from a completely different set of assumptions than you are. In fact, there’s simply nothing like the Internet if you want to be thrown together with people who have ordered their entire lives around fundamental propositions that would never have occurred to you if you lived to be 100. Behold your fellow earthlings, in all their bizarre and twisted glory….

A lot of these disconnects have to do with all the weird and wonderful theories people have about why change happens. Because we each have our own pet theories of how the world works, different people can look at the same situation, and come to completely different conclusions about what’s likely to happen next. Since these often unspoken understandings are among the things futurists are trained to look for, I thought I’d offer a short taxonomy of the various assumptions people bring to their thinking about what drives social change.

Professional futurists have, through the years, boiled down all the various change theories down to about ten basic classifications. (There may be others: the list changes with new information, and we’re always open to suggestions.) But, as a practical working thesis, almost any theory you can name can be sorted into one (or, occasionally, more) of these bins:

1. Progress. Change happens because humans want to improve their condition, and apply ingenuity and good problem-solving to create progress. The people with the best handle on the future are the optimists, though individuals have a lot of control over what will happen. Over the next 20 years, the social and economic conditions of the world will consistently get better, just as they have improved on a ever-rising linear path throughout history.

2. Development. Change happens because people want to build a decent life, which naturally leads societies toward increased specialization and complexity. Individuals don’t have much control over this process. The real change masters are social engineers — mostly experts, academics and political leaders of various sorts — who direct the pace of development. Improvement occurs when people build relationships; over the next 20 years, we will continue to see networks of expert change agents emerge to manage increasing complexity.

3. Technology. Change happens because humans are motivated to solve problems, which requires the creation of new technologies, which in turn drive progress and social change. The real masters of the future are the scientists and technologists who will solve our current problems; and people participate in this change to the extent that they adopt and apply these solutions. Progress depends utterly on the amount of support we give to research and development efforts. Over the next 20 years, biotechnology and new sustainable “green” technologies will create the biggest changes in how we live.

4. Ideas. Change happens when culture changes through the dissemination of new ideas. One good idea has the potential to change the world. The real power to create change belongs to the media, which edits, frames, and disseminates ideas. As individuals adopt these ideas, they participate in the creation of change, and experience personal growth as well. Progress depends on how effectively we work to change people’s thinking. Over the next 20 years, better ideas will be promoted by greatly improved media. The world will become more enlightened as human consciousness grows.

5. Markets. Change happens because people seek to acquire creature comforts — desires which push entrepreneurs and industries to innovate. Industry leaders and economists are the leading experts here, but consumers and their choices are the main change drivers. Progress depends on encouraging people to produce, trade, and consume freely. Over the next 20 years, the world will generally continue to become more consumer-driven as standards rise in less-developed countries (though there may be bumps along the way).

6. Cycles. Change happens according to predictable patterns, which can be discerned by studying history. These patterns are usually seen as cycles or waves, with periods of great change alternating with periods of rest and recovery. (“History doesn’t repeat itself — but it rhymes,” said Twain.) In this view, change is viewed as a natural process, with a lifecyle that includes birth, maturity, and death; and people have limited influence on how this cycle plays out. The greatest insight into these patterns belongs to historians and theorists who have studied them. Progress depends on our ability to learn from the past, and use that knowledge to surf the change waves as they come. Over the next 20 years, long-wave theories call for very large energy, technology, and political shifts.

7. Conflict. Change happens when groups of people engage in a struggle to improve their lot. Those who understand change best are Marxists, union leaders, political organizers and activists, and social justice advocates. People succeed in creating change only if they’re willing to fight for it, and progress occurs when we pursue our own interests to the fullest. The next 20 years will be dominated by conflicts over resources, and by smaller countries who will try to assert growing independence from the US-led order.

8. Power. Change happens when powerful people and groups decide to alter the status quo to further increase their power. Nobody really understands the future unless they’re part of this elite; and the majority of us will have no say in their machinations. (Some Power theories argue that it’s better just to let these well-connected people make the decisions anyway.) Over the next 20 years, they will continue to consolidate their control over nations and industries.

9. Evolution. Change happens when the physical environment changes, and organisms adapt in response to those changes. Ecologists have the deepest understanding of change; the rest of us are co-participants, but nobody really knows what will ultimately come of our efforts. Our best chance of progress lies with our ability to understand the world around us, and find the most appropriate ways of responding to emerging issues. Over the next 20 years, we will either come to terms with our responsibility to nature, or risk extinction. Global warming, mass extinction, and the rise of virulent, drug-resistant organisms are among the biggest concerns.

10. Chaos, Complexity, and Criticality. These are three different theories that have all arisen in the past 40 years as our understanding of systems theory has grown. What they have in common is that they describe system behavior that appears to be non-rational and random; but becomes somewhat comprehensible when you understand the larger system at work. Nobody can really understand all the variables at work; but those who take the time to study a system and its interactions may get an upper hand — or, at least, be prepared for the extreme behavior the system can deliver.

Each of these basic change models has its appropriate uses, its explanatory strengths, and its limits. You can go through almost any comment thread on any blog and find several of these assumptions at work. Most of them aren’t mutually exclusive (and some, like Conflict and Power, are two ends of the same conversation); but we shouldn’t be afraid to have reasoned debates about which model most accurately fits the situation we’re discussing. In fact, making sure we’re working off the right change model is critical if we want to make plans that will actually get us where we want to be.

And many of the political debates we have — with each other and with conservatives — are, at their core, conversations between competing theories. Market theory, left in a vacuum, looks pretty good. Put it alongside the limits of nature, and it looks like a recipe for disaster. Evolutionary thinking explains much about nature, and Richard Dawkins argues persuasively that it may also work for cultural ideas; but when you apply it to social issues, you can easily end up with social Darwinism (which is implicit in the Power model). Not good. And so on. If you’re going to make good guesses about the future, you need to choose your model carefully, stay mindful of its drawbacks, and be sure it actually fits the circumstances of the scenario at hand.

It can also be very instructive to spend some time thinking about the theories that make the most sense to you, personally. Most of us have two or three dominant ones that we think explain just a whole lot about the world; another couple we’re quite comfortable with; and at the other end, one or two that we find genuinely unpalatable. I’ve noticed that whenever I write about my own views on change (which pick and choose from the whole menu, though I’m particularly partial to Ideas and Cycle theories and think that #1, linear progress, was pretty much refuted by the Dark Ages), I’m sure to hear from partisans of other theories.

Part of the strength of the liberal worldview lies in our diverse views of how change happens. Progressives tend to gravitate toward Development, Ideas, and Conflict (though a few forward-thinking ones also like Technology and the “Three C’s” of #10); but most of us are broad-minded enough to entertain other theories, if only as thought exercises. Conservatives agree with us wholeheartedly on Ideas — and that conviction is at the heart of their passion for full-on culture War. Other pet theories on the right include Markets and Power, both of which have been deeply embedded into their ideology. They’ve also got some very different ideas about the potential and appropriate uses of Technology; and both the religious right and the neoliberal economists offers visions of the future that can probably best be classified as (dystopian or utopian, respectively) Progress theories.

I’m offering this in the hope that it will give us another way of thinking about our hopes, fears, and disagreements — both when it’s just progressives talking, and also when we’re trying to figure out where in the hell the other side is coming from. It’s tempting to dismiss people as clueless idiots who just don’t get the point, when all they’re really doing is interpreting events through a different change assumption. And maybe yours is better, and maybe theirs is wrong; but that’s a discussion reasonable people should be able to have.